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The Kitchen Sisters’ Storytelling Confidential

April 12, 2012

The Kitchen Sisters – a.k.a. National Public Radio producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva -- tell extraordinary stories about ordinary people.

Thousands of listeners have tuned in over the years to hear the Sisters’ careening explorations of subjects as diverse as the daily lives of Vietnamese nail salon workers, the history of the country’s first all-female radio station and the myriad ways people interact with their George Foreman Grills.
The Kitchen Sisters met in Santa Cruz in 1979 and soon began collaborating on a weekly radio show about California culture for a local radio station.

“From the very start, our live radio show in Santa Cruz grew out of the oral history tradition. After all this time, so much of this is still in our bones,” said Nikki Silva. “We listen to people for hours and then work to consolidate what they’ve said in a true and honest way.”

Since then, they’ve produced more than 200 stories for public broadcast, collaborated on several hugely popular series about the flotsam and jetsam of our diverse cultural landscape, worked with the likes of Frances Ford Coppola, Paul Auster, Tina Fey and Willie Nelson, and won a slew of accolades including two Peabody Awards, the DuPont-Columbia Award and three Audies.

During an afternoon seminar at the Knight Fellowship Lounge at Stanford, these master storytellers played excerpts from some of their favorite radio pieces and shared tips on the art of storytelling.
What’s perhaps most striking about The Kitchen Sisters’ ideas about how to get interview subjects to open up and tell great stories, is how much their thoughts apply to conducting interviews across any medium in journalism. What works for radio, pretty much works across the board.

Forthwith, a rundown of The Kitchen Sisters’ top interviewing techniques:

• When we first meet people, we often ask them to sing a song, talk about their favorite food or share a story from their childhood. These memory trigger topics make people feel comfortable right from the start.
• Once we are ready to start the formal interview, the most common first question we ask is, “What did you have for breakfast?” People are relieved because it’s an easy question to answer and it frees them up.
• The second thing we usually do is ask interviewees to introduce themselves – to say their name, where they grew up, what they do etc.
• About 10 questions before the end of the interview, we sometimes say, “I have one more question to ask you…” The subject often relaxes even more at this point because they think the interview is over and start to provide really great answers. They don’t even notice that we go on to ask a bunch more questions.
• We usually ask people at the end of an interview if there is anything else they would like to add.
• The advantage of working together on an interview is that we can both ask the same question in a different way to get the best possible answer.
• We often uses phrases like “Could you talk a little bit more about…” or “Tell me more about…” in order to get people to expand on shorter answers.
• Sometimes we’ll encourage people to go deeper into their story by acting surprised by the things they say. We interject phrases like, “Are you kidding?!” and “No way!” The trick is to be interested and amazed.
• We only ask open-ended questions.
• We believe in the freshness of telling and hearing a story for the first time. That’s why we don’t do pre-interviews. If interviewee invites us out for coffee before we get them on tape, we politely decline.

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